2011 Lexus CT 200h: A Prius-like hybrid for the fast crowd

March 31, 2011, 8:23 PM UTC

When gasoline prices start to rise, the thoughts of economy-minded buyers reliably turn to the Toyota Prius, the mileage champ. Edmunds.com reports consideration of the 50-miles-per-gallon Toyota Prius among its online shoppers is up more than 30% since the beginning of the year — triple the increase for all hybrids and small cars in general.

Some shoppers, however, may feel diffident about the Prius. More than two million have been sold worldwide so it is hardly cutting-edge. And even if it didn’t start out that way, the Prius has turned into a car for people who hate cars. In the quest for industry-leading fuel economy, ride and handling have been sacrificed. Sitting in its hyper-aerodynamic body, surrounded by unfamiliar controls and instruments, I feel like I am travelling in a space capsule — a prisoner of advanced technology.

Driving a conventional car like the Camry with a hybrid powertrain didn’t make much sense for many people either. The tradeoff with gasoline is uneconomic, and you don’t get a chance to flaunt your eco-consciousness.

Now Toyota has created an alternative: the Lexus CT 200h.

The Lexus is about the same size as a Prius, carries the same number of people, and is powered by the same combination of 1.8 -liter gasoline engine and 80-horsepower electric motor.

But the Lexus overcomes two big shortcomings of the Prius: It doesn’t look like it just landed from outer space, and it doesn’t drive like a battery-powered sled. On the debit side, it also gets worse gas mileage and costs more.

The CT 200h has an MSRP of $30,900, but the premium audio, leather, and navigation packages drove up the as-tested price of my Premium edition loaner up to $36,725. That’s about $2,500 more than a top-of-the-line Prius Five but still the lowest-price Lexus in the lineup. Mileage is rated at 43 mpg city/40 highway. The Prius is rated a good bit higher at 51 mpg city/48 highway.

For those willing to make the tradeoff (did somebody call my name?), the CT 200h (CT stands for “compact tourer”) is a handsome piece that feels and drives better than you would expect — and gets you access to Lexus’s famously accommodating service at a bargain price.

The four-doors-and-liftback body style blend the practicality of a sport wagon with the go-fast dash of a hot hatch. It may be the sportiest looking production Lexus around. The interior, while not as cushy as in higher-end Lexuses, still makes you feel welcomed. The instrument panel is mostly familiar, accessible, and helpful (although, oddly, the data on instant and overall fuel economy is displayed on separate screens). The funky Prius gear selector that feels more like a joy stick returns in the CT 200h.

The biggest step forward for the CT 200h is in ride and handling. The suspension has been upgraded, the car is better balanced, and the steering has been made more precise. Gone are the rock-hard low rolling resistance tires; they are replaced by more pliant rubber. This is one dedicated hybrid that doesn’t mind going around corners or punishing your backside on broken pavement.

Regrettably, the Lexus won’t eliminate the Prius in a contest at your local drag strip. It is rated at an identical 9.8 seconds in getting to 60 miles per hour. Shift the transmission to the eco mode and it takes even longer — nearly an eternity. The transmission’s sport mode provided only slight relief but exacted no visible penalty in mileage. Over several hundred miles, I averaged 41.4 mpg.

A word from the color police: My test car was drenched in paint called “Daybreak Yellow Mica.” “Mustard” would be an equally accurate description. Neighbors complained and dogs howled. Daybreak Yellow Mica would look fine on a hot dog but lacks the classiness I associate with Lexus.

Toyota planned to only sell about 1,000 CT 200h’s a month before the earthquake disrupted its production, making this limited edition vehicle even more limited. A few million more of them on the roads and the U.S. could start reducing its dependence on foreign oil.